By Carol Burbank
Kim Yaged’s bittersweet love story is everyone’s fantasy. We leave our first, tempestuous relationship, grow separately, and years later are reunited with promises of passion and a healthier, happier union. It could happen.
Or maybe not. This is the puzzle of Her, and its most promising aspect. Yaged weaves the experiences of Serena at ages 8, 15, 22, and 29 into the relationship she has with Ariel at 22 and 29. Without playing into cloying inner-child stereotypes, Yaged shows the natural curiosity and sometimes despairing eccentricity that drive Serena even as a child. As a young woman, Serena’s promiscuity and erotic manipulations are challenged by Ariel’s monogamy and needy moodiness. In the end, confronted by Ariel’s 29-year-old maturity, Serena is forced to accept that their relationship has to become something new–probably the only way this mismatched pair has a chance.
In the first act, the two youngest Serenas move in and out of the house where the 22-year-old Ariel and Serena live together, the 8-year-old writing in diaries and playing jacks and other children’s games, the 15-year-old waxing sullen, discovering pornography, and demonstrating any number of times Serena’s developing independence and sexuality. Meanwhile the 22-year-old pair are plainly terrified by their love: Ariel is homophobic, and behind her perkiness Serena is filled with self-loathing. Their reunion in the second act–when Serena meets Ariel, now married, in her living room–parallels the embattled end of their relationship seven years earlier.
This time weaving makes Her more interesting. Without the nonlinear structure, this would be simply a standard romance braided with sometimes overpsychologized characters. In a way Yaged has created a memory play in which past events are seen simultaneously with their consequences. Intriguingly dislocated, the play exhibits moments of humor as well as disappointing cliches. As the 29-year-old couple sit in glum reverie on the couch, the younger lovers squabble and rip at each other’s feelings, slamming groceries on the counter and arguing over nothing with the comic idiocy of many couples. But the fight escalates into pleas and fearful rage, then slips into predictable images when the two are joined by 15-year-old Serena, who echoes her older self’s fear by dangling a large, sharp knife over her own wrist. These background scenes are more effective when we see remembered interactions rather than emblematic emotional moments.
By the end of the show I was beginning to wonder where Ariel’s past was. Though many actresses play the various Serenas, the story isn’t only hers–Ariel is just as present and as important to the play’s development. But Ariel at 8 and 15 are not only not represented–they’re hard to imagine. If Yaged is saying that the girl is mother to the woman, as her direct structure and straightforward dialogue seem to suggest, she should have given equal time to Ariel. The lopsided development makes the relationship between Serena and Ariel seem not quite real.
Contributing to this imbalance is the seemingly obligatory convention of one actor playing all the men. I realize that casting five or six men to play bit parts is expensive and not generally necessary. But in a play in which one character is played by four actresses and the other by two, Wellesley Chapman’s journeyman performance as the (mostly) unpleasant male figures is too baldly visible, too plainly clownish. In this production the shortcut calls attention to the play’s raw edges: it’s not quite strong enough to support the interwoven characterization.
Director Becky Brett effectively blocks the action, and her actors hit their marks, but she hasn’t found a way to convey and yet contain the play’s tension. By the time the reunion arrived I’d witnessed too many all-out confrontations, explosions, and reconciliations to worry much about these desperate women. Yaged’s two lovers are convincing, however, thanks primarily to the easy eroticism of Sarah Romine, who plays Serena at 22. Bethany Anderson, who plays Ariel at 29, successfully combines the character’s repressed passion and moral control. And as young Serena, Andrea Noel Costa is casual and quite natural. But the other performers are trapped in the emotional excesses of Yaged’s characters, shrilling, pacing, and stiffening as they indicate the feelings and betrayals instead of embodying them.
Her shows promise and, as befits Bailiwick’s Pride Series, a respect for lesbian relationships, never indulging in burlesque or dewy-eyed extremes. But it’s still incomplete, more diary collage than finished play.